Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C (July 31)

Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 31)

All five of the readings today are consistent in their message to us: the material things we strive so hard for in our lives won’t really matter when we die. And these material things could be possessions or it could be deep knowledge or it could be power. But when we die, it’s all gone. How vain we are to think we can take it with us. “Vanity of vanities!” we proclaim in the first reading. Suppose you struggle to learn everything you can and become master of some knowledge or skill. It may be passed on to another when you die. All your work, just to be given to someone who didn’t work for it. We work so hard to be wise. What will that wisdom get us in the long run except worry and unrest while we strive for it?

That’s the negative message of Ecclesiastes. Even though it is very true, it seems to be quite a “downer”, doesn’t it?

The Psalm says much the same thing but puts it in a more positive way, I think. The Psalmist also recognizes that we are all going to die, just like natural things around us, and we will be returned to dust, but his lesson is that we ask God to “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Ecclesiastes says that wisdom goes away when we die, but the psalmist talks not about intellectual wisdom but the wisdom of the heart – the good we do for others by our love. That is what we will be judged on and what will survive.

St. Paul, too, in Colossians tells us that we need to get rid of earthly passions and habits and “set [our] minds on things that are above”. Paul is concerned with the types of things men and women do in life that feed their passions and take away our ability to keep our minds on the goal of being with God. What will remain for Paul after death is how Christ-like we acted, and when we are judged, it will be revealed that we died with Christ and will be glorified with him as God’s sons and daughters. What Paul saw around him in the Greek world were things that took us away from being Christ-like and made us unloving: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desires and lying. Those are the things , he says, that will stop us from being Christ-like. Instead, always look to “things that are above”, the imitations of Christ. We are helped in doing this by Christ’s actions which have allowed us to clothe ourselves with a new self, in the image of the Creator. That will stay with us after we die.

Lastly, we get to the Gospel of Luke. The set up for Christ’s lesson today comes from the two brothers who were fighting over their father’s inheritance. One of the brothers asks Jesus to settle the argument. This story is only found in the Gospel of Luke, although just as a side note, it is found in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas in a shorter form.

Why did this brother ask Jesus to settle an inheritance issue? It was not something Jesus had been doing – he had been healing, yes, but physical illnesses. Perhaps he felt that from hearing Jesus talk, especially in the area of justice, that Jesus might issue a fair judgment.

Now there are laws in the Old Testament that cover who inherits, but apparently, this brother felt that those laws were not being met. They say that settling inheritances brings out the worst in families!

Jesus will have nothing to do with it, however. The motivating issue here seems to be greed, and Jesus is not about to decide whose greed was best. Instead, it provokes a parable from him that hearkens all the way back to our first reading from Ecclesiastes. Jesus says, “Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

The story Jesus then tells is a simple and direct one. A man who was rich had a number of good years of farming and had great windfalls of crops, so much so that he couldn’t store all the produce. So, he decided to pull down his storage facilities and build new, bigger ones.

In so doing, he felt that he could then rest easy for many, many years because his produce would last him for years, even in a famine. He could, “eat, drink and be merry”!

The surprise Alfred Hitchcock type of ending comes very quickly. Just as he is about to relax into his possessions, he has a heart attack and dies. Now all the grains he has put away will be someone else’s. He was not a bad man, but he was a fool.

Jesus ends the parable with the admonition: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

We have to ask ourselves then, what does it mean to be “rich toward God.”

Luke, all the way through his Gospel, brings up the issue of possessions, the have and have-nots, the full and the empty. Luke’s point here was to stress John the Baptist’s mission, Jesus’ mission and the early church’s mission  to share possessions, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked and so on.

To be “rich toward God” then means having just enough for yourself and sharing the rest with others. I can’t stress this enough as a deep concern in the Gospel of Luke, and something which Americans need to look at closely today when most of the wealth is held by a very small percentage of people. If our American government is in any way Christian, it is when it tries to equalize the wealth – something which has proven to be very hard to do. Capitalism is fine, but only if the people also become” rich toward God”!

Unfortunately, the Gospel ends here, but the section doesn’t end here. Jesus in the final section, which we don’t get to read – and you might want to read on your own – turns the negativity around by presenting the idea that generosity, almsgiving, along with fasting and prayer are the cornerstones of Jewish writing. He ends the section by saying “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Our hearts follow the treasure. If we give the extra away, we will be “rich toward God”.

It seems rather obvious what we need to consider about ourselves this week. I can hoard along with the best of you. But it’s only when we share, when we are satisfied that we have what we really need, that we will be less anxious, happier and have a rich heart. We all need to look at what we can do in our own lives to get rid of the clutter, to share what we have, and to help those who are in need. Then it will no longer be the cry: Vanity of vanities! but the cry of joy from clearly having sight of God and knowing “Christ is all in all.”

And this is the tough lesson that leads to the Good News we read today!

Ronald Stephens

Bishop of Holy Trinity Diocese and pastor of St. Andrew’s Cathedral Parish

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[Volume 3 (Luke) of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast from the last Cycle C, is available from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

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